Laurent was born in Port au Prince 52 years ago. When he was 18, he decided to migrate, along with his older brother. His native Haiti, was enshrouded by political instability and economic crisis, and it didn’t offer them the success they yearned. “Venezuela was the land of opportunities,” Laurent says, as he remembers the first time he set eyes on El Ávila. “An image I will never forget.”
I met him travelling from Ecuador to Chile. His children live in Santiago. “My first job was in the Coche market (in Caracas). There, I helped load and unload trucks at four in the morning, while at the same time I practiced my Spanish. Venezuelans always talk very fast,” he says with a cadence that fights with his heavy French Caribbean accent.
“For many of my co-workers, I was an ignorant black man that was only good to carry heavy bags. I had to fight hard to get paid on time. I don’t know if they didn’t like the color of my skin, where I came from, or both.” He’s very familiar with the stereotypes that surround the Haitian community in Venezuela. “They used to call me ‘ice-cream man’ (the trade that many Haitians in Venezuela used to do) or say that I should go and sell coconut sweets. I once tried to enroll in some business studies; I felt so bad by the way the admissions secretary looked at me and treated me, that I decided not to start the course.”
Laurent talks about how he had to fight against the harassment his children suffered in school. The kids came home upset almost every day because of the way they were treated. “My wife was a seamstress, and she stayed home all day while I worked at a warehouse in El Valle, Caracas. She would wait for them at home and in the evening she told me what happened.”
Whenever she spoke to the school principal, Laurent’s wife noticed how the administration staff would ignore and disdain her claims. “Only one teacher, who was as black as us, but from Upata (deep in Bolívar state), stood up for us and focused on making sure our children weren’t bullied,” Laurent says.
For many of my co-workers, I was an ignorant black man that was only good to carry heavy bags. I had to fight hard to get paid on time. I don’t know if they didn’t like the color of my skin, where I came from, or both.
“Do you carry any resentment because of those mistreatments, Laurent?” I ask.
“No. Venezuela gave me the opportunity to work and the money to give my children an education. An education that I didn’t have. But to go as far as saying that there isn’t racism over there, that’s a lie.”
It’s No Joke
Many of us grew up under the thought that discrimination was only a way to show endearment, or mere pranking. César, a psychologist and caraqueño, tells us how “once, fresh out of the University, I applied for a job at a company that carries out polls. When I went for the interview, the girl that was in charge of selection scanned me from top to bottom and I knew right away that I wouldn’t be hired. She asked me several questions, but they all focused on the typical Venezuelan clichés about black people.” Clichés that are covered in generalizations: all of them are criminals, all of them are ignorant, all of them are poor.
Leo, a musician born in Caracas and currently living in México, agrees. “In Venezuela, we normalized racist vocabulary. We normalized it as a way to joke around, but when anyone thinks that black people do something bad, the words are derogatory. White people were of course offended when someone gave them nicknames, anyone would. But how many of them wouldn’t be allowed inside a nightclub because of the color of their skin?”
Leo knows very well why he uses that example. In January, 2017, his social media was on fire after he wrote about how he was denied entry to a nightclub in eastern Caracas’s because of the color of his skin. “Since I’m a musician, I’ve always moved within the nightclub circuit. I’d always hear cases of black people being denied access to nightclubs, everyone in Caracas has heard those stories. They didn’t care that I was a musician and that a lot of people inside that nightclub knew me, I was told I wasn’t going in.”
At the time, his story went viral and sparked the debate about racism in Venezuela. A type of discrimination that joins others, such as xenophobia and classism.
That’s the way Alejandro sees it, with brown skin, black hair, and brown eyes, Venezuelan by birth but a Colombian national, too. “My parents came to Venezuela in the late ‘70s, when the country boasted a strong economy. My uncle tells me that once, as he waited in line at his school, one of the teachers told another, with the full intention of him hearing it, that they had to be careful with the ‘caliches’, because they could rob them.”
Discrimination was always present, especially with the clichés that were built around Colombians: all Colombians were narcos, all Colombians were thieves and liars. “Once at school, I was told I must be a narco because my parents were Colombian. Obviously those things hurt a 12-year-old. In my house, we were careful not to tell anyone that we were going on vacation to Colombia, to avoid barbaric comments,” Alejandro says. He’s currently living in Bogotá.
Yet living in the Colombian capital, Alejandro has had to face another type of discrimination: being Venezuelan. “It’s a very complicated topic. In the Colombian coast I haven’t felt that much discrimination, but I’ve felt it in Bogotá. Saying that racism or any other kind of discrimination doesn’t exist in Venezuela, is living in a bubble. And now, many Venezuelans who have migrated, have to experience it themselves.”
I knew right away that I wouldn’t be hired. She asked me several questions, but they all focused on the typical Venezuelan clichés about black people.
Pedro has the same feeling. While he was born in Ecuador, he moved to Caracas with his family when he was six. He’s back in Ecuador now, in Riobamba. “In Caracas people would call me cotorro, or ignorant Indian. At school I was always the strange one because I didn’t look like any of my peers. Now that I’m back in my home country, I’m the veneco.”
Pedro’s family stood out for having several clothing stores in Propatria, Caracas, and most of the times he went with his father to tend to one of them, he came home with a story to tell. “I remember a lady came in to buy a shirt. Since she didn’t like the price because she thought it was too expensive, she began screaming how they could let ‘these Indians’ into Venezuela. The fuss was so big, that even the police came in. After that my dad didn’t want me to go to the stores that much.”
Pedro still makes a living from the family business of selling clothes, and his two daughters have graduated from university. “Halfway through Law school, a teacher told one of them not to worry too much about finishing because Indians would never be lawyers. When she told me that, I went to the school and made a complaint, and while it was written on his record, the teacher kept his job. We can’t say that in our country, because Venezuela is also my country, there’s no discrimination.”
As I registered these testimonies, I also recalled two stories. One of them happened while I was studying at the university, doing a group assignment at a classmate’s house. Her mother offered us a chocolate beverage and when she brought them, she told me: “It’s really black, just like you.” She didn’t say it as a joke; her tone was full of scorn.
Then, one day when I was walking on the sidewalk near our home in Quinta Crespo, my mother and I were almost run over by a car that went on the sidewalk. When my mother complained, he just said: “Come on, cotorrita, keep walking.” My mother is Ecuadorian by birth, but has been living in Venezuela for over 40 years.
In an interview with Milagros Socorro, anthropologist and writer Michaelle Ascencio, Venezuelan with Haitian roots, said: “Racism in Venezuela is an attitude towards certain people based on their physical features; and many times, in Venezuela, that attitude is rejection. But since the 19th century, the rhetoric has been determined in denying tensions between the groups that make up Venezuelan society, and since local racism isn’t like the one in the United States, for example, it has served as a route for denial. In Venezuela, people don’t get killed because they’re black, and that’s the extreme bar used to minimize the violence that we live in.”
These six testimonies confirm what Ascencio said: there’s subtle racism in our country, and subtlety might minimize discrimination, but it’ll never hide it.
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